Knowledge Is Power, But Is It Worth Spying For?

By Amy Hirshberg Lederman
The Arizona Daily Star, December 8, 2002

When former Iran-Contra defendant Admiral John Poindexter was appointed to run the little-known Defense Department operation called “Total Information Awareness” and prominently displayed a sign on his door stating that “Knowledge is Power”, I felt a little queasy. And when President Bush signed into law the Homeland Security Act that permits the secret monitoring of my e-mails, bank accounts, credit card transactions, transcripts, telephone calling cards, medical records and travel documents, all without a search warrant, I definitely felt a headache coming on.

Call it by any other name, but Total Information Awareness is a euphemism for a federally legitimized surveillance program to spy on American citizenry, regardless of cause for suspicion. Didn’t I read a book in eighth grade by George Orwell that had the same theme?

The rationale for such draconian measures is that it will help us track suspected terrorists while they are in the process of their destructive schemes and thus, prevent further attacks. While I’m totally in favor of taking every reasonable effort to prevent future terrorist assaults, I can not support a fishing expedition which casts its net so broadly as to include all of American citizenry. Call me “old fashioned” but I tend to think that neither would the Framers of the Constitution, who drafted the Fourth Amendment in order to guarantee “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, an effects, against unreasonable search and seizures.” And by the way, don’t we need to show probable cause in order to get a search warrant or has that been discarded too?

I know, I know. Our government is taking its best shot at attempting to ensure homeland security. Then why am I feeling less and less secure with each passing piece of legislation and court order?

Take for example, the USA Patriot Act which gives the executive branch overwhelming if not exclusive power and reduces the previous system of judicial checks and balances. Or how about the expansion of the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) that expanded the powers of the court which approves electronic surveillance of citizens and resident aliens serving a foreign power. Previously, the FISA court could only act if foreign intelligence was the primary purpose of the investigation; now it need only be “a significant purpose”. This change will make it easier for the government to have access to our personal and business records and relax the standards for internet surveillance and wiretaps, even in criminal cases.

To complete the gloomy picture, look at what happened in the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals when it ruled that the Bush administration acted lawfully in holding hundreds of deportation hearings in secret, reversing a federal district court in New Jersey which ordered that all deportation hearings be open unless the government could prove that secrecy was needed on a case-by-case basis. The 3rd Circuits decision was based on the theory that those detained may have had links to terrorism.

The strangle-hold that fear has on the American public is reflected in these decisions and weigh heavily in favor of national security over rights to privacy. We have replaced our previous anxieties about deadly diseases, economic ruin, and random homicidal strangers with a new focus: imminent terrorist attacks. But preying on the publics’ vulnerability is a cheap trick, one that Benjamin Franklin addressed over two hundred years ago when he stated: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Washington and our courts must tread carefully. Stringent review is needed now, not later when these mechanisms are so firmly in place that we no longer remember that unreasonable searches and seizures are unconstitutional. If our government is truly determined to protect American citizens, then our protections must include the essential liberties that the U.S. Constitution guarantees.